Ghoul of My Dreams
Goth Sex Bomb
She’s a sarcastic sex-bomb.
As bad girls go, she's among the baddest: over-the-top Goth chick make-up, an ozone-layer scraping black bee-hive, slinky ebony garb, and canyon-esque cleavage.
And she’s also just the tiniest bit scary (but in that fun, spanky way).
It’s for all this and much more she ranks as one of my all-time favorite TV babes. It’s why I am madly in love with Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.Credit: header from Elvira web-site
Since television’s inception many local programs created in certain cities went on to become huge national hits (e.g., Howdy Doody, American Bandstand, Romper Room, Bozo's Circus). These shows anchored local affiliates, and boosted ad revenues terrifically. Local affiliates, always under pressure, had to compete or die.
But cable turned that around. Now, people had choices (albeit still mostly filled with garbage, but choices nonetheless), and it spelt Death for many formerly viable TV stations. The networks saw erosion in viewership. [Which still didn’t stop them from developing and keeping crummy shows, though. Wasn’t Love Boat on for about 74 years?]
For local stations, though, with some discretionary-use air time and autonomy, a good gimmicky program could keep viewers on hand.
Since the days of steam-and-hamster powered television, shtick has been a mainstay. In the late 1950s through today, Grade-B horror, sci-fi, and crime movies found late-night audiences. The films were cheap to option; they cost almost nothing to run, and there was no scripting required. Such fare was a complete win for any network (almost no overhead). Getting people to watch your horror movie was important (gotta get those 60-second, zombie-creating, mind-control advertising bites in). Thus, the late-night horror-movie host was born.
Almost every market had its late-night horror-movie program and sinister host. My memories of growing up in Chicago include the horror host, “Svengoolie” (a punny take on “Svengali”). The character was created by local DJ, Jerry G. Bishop (d: 2013), and ran under the program title of Screaming Yellow Theater on Chicago'’s UHF Channel 32. Svengoolie, like many of his ilk then, injected a bit of humor into his song-and-dance so he wasn’t really that scary. But he enjoyed local celebrity status. many nights found me, as a wee sprout, sitting up late, watching Mr. Sardonicus or It Came from Outer Space—that’s great stuff for an 8-year-old boy. [The character of Svengoolie has been resurrected with a different actor—the program is popular on retro network, Me-TV.]
Fast forward to the time of cable’s ascent and the (malingering) death of network television as America had come to know and hate.
In Los Angeles in the mid 1970s KHJ-TV’s horror host was Sinister Seymour. His weekend show was called simply Fright Night. In 1976, the actor playing Sinister Seymour (Larry Vincent) died. In 1981, KHJ decided to resurrect Fright Night, only this time with a female host. They tapped the original Vampira from the 1950s (a woman named Maila Nurmi, featured in Ed Woods’ Plan 9 from Outer Space, considered by most critics as the worst movie ever made). Nurmi, however, was difficult to work with, and the station and she parted company after a short run.
The rest is history as my beloved came to great public attention for the first time. To recast the part of the scary hostess vacated by Vampira, KHJ auditioned over 200 aspirants. One of those was a flame-haloed, all woman (“. . . and not a speck of cereal . . . ”) treat named Cassandra Peterson.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark (and my particular Goddess of All Things Clumsily Sexy & Evil) had her humble beginnings in Kansas. Cassandra Peterson was born in Manhattan, Kansas, on September 17, 1951. [And they must grow ’em good in Kansas—look how she turned out. All that corn and beef, I guess]. Her family moved to another town that was later flooded out of existence to create an artificial reservoir. Then they moved to Colorado Springs, and Cassandra jumped into show biz for the first time.
Cassandra Peterson’s career is fairly kooky, and is actually what you might imagine Elvira’s résumé looks like. Her beginnings were sleazy enough: as a teen, she danced in a gay bar. [A waste unless it was a female gay bar.]
In 1969 just days after her high school graduation the 17-year old drove to Vegas and secured a spot as a showgirl at The Dunes (completely mobbed up at the time). [In 2009, Cassandra publicly stated that Welsh singer Tom Jones was the man to whom she lost her virginity in Vegas. Her reasoning was that she was going to do it anyway, it might as well be with someone famous. She also reported he was exceedingly rough and an inconsiderate slob whose inadequate technique left her needing a couple of stitches from tearing.]
She played a small part (as a showgirl!) in the 1971 Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. She briefly dated Elvis. She moved to Italy, fronted an Italian rock band for awhile, and got a bit part in a Fellini film (1972’s Roma, after a chance meeting with the great director – I’m sure he stared at her eyes the whole time).
She returned to the US and played discos and small clubs as part of a musical comedy act named Mammas Boys. In 1974 she was a topless dancer in The Working Girls.
Credit: 1976And, just to add a little mystery, she is allegedly the firey-haired, pastied B-girl on the front cover of Tom Waits’ 1976 LP, Small Change. The mystery here is Cassandra claims she can’t recall doing the photo shoot for the cover, but she thinks it looks enough like her to be her. [Judge for yourself—here’s a detail image of the album cover for your perusal. And don’t be staring too hard, you’ll go blind!]
She was a member, in 1979, of the improv group The Groundlings (LA’s answer to Chicago’s Second City). [Another famous Groundlings’ alumnus is Paul Reubens, a/k/a, Pee-Wee Herman, who developed his character with the troupe.]
One of the last things Cassandra did before her audition with KHJ was try out for the part of Ginger Grant for a third made-for-TV Gilligan’s Island movie. She got the callback for the KHJ horror show, though. The station left her to her own devices for creating the character.
Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, is an amalgam of Vampira, Morticia Addams, the comic book heroine Vampirella, and Cassandra Peterson. At the time she took over the helm, Elvira was a unique commodity. The name “Elvira” was created to not infringe upon Vampira’s trademarked imagery and brand. Vampira’s creator, Maila Nurmi, sued Cassandra for intellectual property infringement anyway. The case was thrown out.
Cassandra’s personality is all over her creation. The charisma, her physicality, the sexy presence, the cornball humor, and the sarcasm are all Cassandra. Cassandra is self-effacing, hyper-aware of her physical attributes (one of her favorite jokes as Elvira is a threat to run for President: “There’s already two boobs in the White House, might as well be mine!”), and her snarky commentary on the Grade Z movie of the night is often hilarious. [And it was fresh at the time. Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the Nineties was a late-comer to the snotty-host genre.]
She also has a slightly sinister, simmering malevolence along with the humor. It’s sort of how you’d like to mess with Catwoman, but you know you probably better not.
A typical moment in one of her broadcasts is this gem. While screening a horrible horror film, Elvira listens as a smirking stable boy delivers this line: “We shet ’im up inna wood shid.” (“We shut him up in the wood shed”). The sound work on this movie was terrible as was the actor’s accent. Elvira asks, “What?”, stops the movie, rewinds, listens again, “Huh?”, and she goes on like this several more times. Later in the broadcast she took to running just that clip before her commercial breaks.
It was a shining moment. Cassandra Peterson, presumably, learned something of the absurd and of the repetitive joke from The Groundlings (and probably from the cartoonish life she lived before that).
And she has her fans. In the early 1980s she was adopted by punks and Goth kids alike. The horror genre, fantasy nerds, the comedy genre, and the dungeons-and-dragons geeks: they all have a warm place in their hearts (and, presumably, in their pants) for Elvira.
But my love for Elvira must be shared equally with Cassandra Peterson (the secret identity to the super hero, the ego to the id, the yin to the yang—you get it). Cassandra as Cassandra is also a smokin’ hottie, but she has the added bonus of being a real live, thinking, walking, talking woman (and not a fictional character).
And it is Elvira’s subtext (of the empowered woman) that makes me love her even more, because I know that for every leer, jeer, and sneer from Elvira, Cassandra is behind it silently, perhaps even smugly, calculating just how well this has worked for her. Cassandra Peterson has done a remarkable job of marketing: the brand, of course, is she. And unlike many who do the same thing for decades, she still seems to get a kick out of being Elvira.
Credit: plasticsurgeryindex.comThe character Elvira is known almost universally. That’s a major statement to make for a woman who walked into a local TV studio to audition with only some dumb Valley-girl bit (something she developed with The Groundlings) to use for the try out. This Val-Speak is part of Elvira’s shtick, and it is funny; this über temptress speaking like a Valley High sophomore from the Eighties is hilarious in its incongruity. Cassandra worked this out on her own and became fabulously wealthy and famous in the process.
Today, Cassandra Peterson (single, married to her personal manager from 1981 to 2003) is still doing her Elvira thing to the adoration of who knows how many fans; I’m sure the majority are male, but so what?
She also participated on The SyFy Channel’s shows, such as the contest-based Face Off (where special make-up effects artists endure weekly challenges to win or be eliminated from competition) and the very dorky Fangasm (a “reality” show where nerdlings, both male and female, lived in a house, hoping for a chance for an internship under the tutelage of a hefty chick who works for comic book king Stan Lee’s Comikaze outfit).
In the same way Howard Stern is “The King of All Media”, Cassandra Peterson (if her ego were overly inflated) could be considered “The Queen of All Media”.
She’s done just about everything imaginable in show biz: singer, dancer, actress (TV and movies), recording artist, radio personality, and entertainer (I don’t think she’s ever been a test pilot or a brain surgeon, but with Cassandra who knows?)Credit: Gage Skidmore, 2011
And at age 63 in or out of character, she still looks like a sex goddess (yeah, so she has a few wrinkles, but that wouldn’t stop me from . . . well, you know). [And you heard me: she's 64 as of September 2015! Most of the attendant photos in this section were taken in 2011, and she looks exactly the same today.]
She has brains, a wacky sense of humor, and she has survived in a line of work with a short half-life, that of the oddball character. [Seen any Fonz or Steve Urkel references lately?] She also has tremendous business savvy, creating a powerhouse brand with the Elvira image.
Elvira is slinky. She is sexy, a little creepy, and morbidly sensual. She looks as if she would bite you, but maybe not too hard, and she might titter about it afterward.
Her combination of beauty and brains is why I am madly in love with Elvira. [Oh, and you, too, Cassandra Peterson—I mean it. Sincerely!]